Part 2: An uncluttered back-to-school transition

Wake the kids and tell them to grab their backpacks: it’s time to go back to school. This can be a stressful time for kids and parents, but a little preparation goes a long way. In Part 2 of our back-to-school series, I’ll highlight some ways technology can ease the transition from summer.

Go social

When I was in school, we huddled around the radio on snowy mornings, eager for a closing announcement. Today, many school districts share this information via the web and social media. Get yourself in the loop this school year and visit your district’s website to find the following information:

  • Your school’s and/or district’s Twitter feed
  • Any associated Facebook accounts
  • Classroom-specific websites
  • Classroom Blackboard accounts and mobile applications
  • Teacher blogs

Of course, some schools will embrace social technology more completely than others. Colleges and universities seem to be the most aggressive, but even elementary schools are using the technologies available to them. If your school/district/child’s teacher is using websites, be sure to bookmark the sites and/or add them to an RSS feed so you can easily access the information for future reference.

Subscribe to a school calendar

Most schools publish a calendar for parents and students to review, and many offer the opportunity to subscribe electronically for immediate updates. The Salt Lake City School District is a great example of a digital calendar, with instructions for subscribing to it with Apple’s Calendar, Google Calendar, and Outlook and Yahoo Calendar. Once you’re subscribed, you needn’t depend on the monthly printed calendars you likely have hanging on the refrigerator.

Make custom notifications

I’ve written about IFTTT before on Unclutterer, and the start of the school year is another time to use this program. IFTT is an online service that lets you create actions, or recipes, to accomplish tasks for you, including custom notifications.

For example, let’s say your district or teacher always uses adds a certain hashtag when composing tweets related to your child’s school or class. You could create a recipe that sends you a text message or an email whenever such a tweet is published. Or, you can have all of those tweets pushed to a Google document for a daily review.

On the other side of the desk, IFTTT is a terrific resource for teachers and schools. Communications with students and parents can easily be automated.

Here’s hoping you have a successful school year. There’s more to do to get ready, of course, but these technology tips are a good place to start.


Part 1 of the series

Part 1: An uncluttered back-to-school transition

Based on where you live, your kids may have already headed back to the classroom or they’re preparing to go in September. If you’re a student, you might be in the same boat. This transition period doesn’t have to be a stressful time. Households that have established routines are extremely beneficial for children and parents. Being prepared will bring peace of mind and make everyone’s transition from summer days to school days easier.

Start the school routine a week early

Practicing the routine in advance is especially important for children who are just starting school or who will be starting a new school. By doing a few trial runs before the school year actually starts, you’ll be able to determine if there are any problems with the new routine before the first day.

Plot the route

If your children are starting a new school, walk or bike with them on their route. Point out areas where there is heavy traffic and where drivers may have difficulty seeing pedestrians. Indicate safe havens where children can find assistance or a telephone if needed (e.g. convenience stores, public offices, houses of worship). Map out an alternate route home in case of emergency. If your child takes public transit or a school bus, create a plan in case the buses are late or if your child misses his/her stop.

Unplug and preset

Turning off the TVs and computers at least an hour before bedtime will allow you and/or your kids to get organized for the next morning. Make lunches (if you didn’t make them when preparing dinner) and gather school supplies together. You can even set plates, cups, and silverware on the table for breakfast.

Create a drop zone

Hang backpacks on hooks near the door so kids will know exactly where to find their stuff and where to put it when they get home. Make an inbox where they can put all the paperwork for you to fill out and sign. You can create one inbox for all the children but one box per child may work better, especially if the children attend different schools.

Prepare for the paperwork

Every year the school requires information such as health card numbers, vaccination schedules, emergency contact numbers, etc. If you know where all this information is, you’ll be able to fill out all those forms quickly and easily. Once filled out, make a copy of the paperwork for yourself. It will be easier to find the information for next year.

Create an in-home supply closet and pharmacy

Stocking up on supplies will save you from running across town to the 24-hour (expensive) pharmacy. While the sales are still going on at retailers, gather pencils, markers, notebook paper, and other supplies you and/or your children will need this entire school year (that is, if you have the space to store these items in an uncluttered way) Also, don’t forget items such as bandages, cold medication, and even lice shampoo that may be needed during the first weeks back.

Create a homework zone

While older children may benefit from doing homework in their bedrooms at a desk or in the home office, younger children who need parental support to do their homework in the kitchen or dining room while their parents are preparing dinner. Wherever the homework zone is located, make it easy to use and easy to put away supplies.

Make a “fingertip file”

Use a binder with sheet protectors to contain important information such as the school phone numbers, a list of phone numbers of friends of your children, the list of parents who carpool, menus from the local take-out restaurants, etc. You’ll be able to find what you need this school year exactly when you need it.

Get your money and tickets ready

 
Purchase transit tickets and taxi vouchers in advance, if necessary. Fill a jar or bowl with coins and small bills so you won’t be scrounging for lunch money at the last minute.

Schedule everyone’s activities on a calendar

Enter all of the school holidays and pedagogical days on the calendar as soon as the information is received from the school so that you can arrange for daycare or other activities as soon as possible. In Part 2 of our back-to-school series we’ll go into more detail about creating a digital calendar and in Part 3 we’ll explore using a paper calendar with younger children.

Ask Unclutterer: How do you stay motivated when sorting papers?

Reader John recently asked the following question in the comment section of the post “Why is organizing and uncluttering paper so difficult?“:

The draining emotional impact of sorting through and properly organizing boxes and file cabinets of paper can at times be overwhelming. Could you address in more detail strategies for maintaining or improving personal motivation to get the ongoing task completed?

John, many people have this concern, so I’m very glad you asked the question. The following are strategies that might work to motivate you to keep organizing your papers.

Work in reasonably small blocks of time

Organizer Janine Adams wrote on her Peace of Mind Organizing Blog about a women who got through 12 years of accumulated papers by working on them for 15 to 30 minutes a day. It’s often easier to tackle a dreaded task if you know you only have to do it for a short period of time.

But, if you want to work for a longer stretch of time, that’s fine, too — just be sure to take breaks. You want to avoid decision fatigue. If you find yourself thinking, “I just don’t care any more,” you might start making poor decisions as a result.

Create a pleasant work environment

If you’re a person who gets energized from music, try playing some as you sort through those papers. Also, make sure you’re working in an area with sufficient lighting and a comfortable room temperature.

Have good tools

I know someone who prefers to keep certain papers in a three-ring binder. However, her three-hole paper punch didn’t work well; she always had to struggle with it. She has decided to invest in a higher quality hole punch that will be easier to use.

It definitely helps if all your frequently used tools work well. Those tools might include a label maker, a stapler, a staple puller, a letter opener, a shredder, and a scanner. If you are someone who is inspired by beautiful or cute objects, consider investing in those, too.

Put some things off

If you’re going through a big stack of papers and find a few you just can’t deal with right now, set them aside. Know that this is both normal and perfectly okay. Don’t let the few papers that are hardest to deal with derail your efforts. And, when you come back to those papers somewhat later, you may find them less challenging.

Keep the goal in mind

You’re likely going through papers for some good reason: so you can find things when you need them, so your space supports you in your work and family life, etc. Keep your goal in mind, and celebrate the small victories along the way, such as a critical paper found, or a chair that’s now usable because it no longer has papers stacked on it.

Enlist some help

A trusted friend might be able to help by doing a first-pass sort: financial, medical, etc. Or the friend could simply sit with you as you go through the papers, perhaps acting as a sounding board or just as an accountability partner.

And you can always hire a professional organizer to help. The National Association of Professional Organizers has a website that can help you find someone in your area.

Thank you, John, for asking such a good question.

Do you have a question relating to organizing, cleaning, home and office projects, productivity, or any problems you think the Unclutterer team could help you solve? To submit your questions to Ask Unclutterer, go to our contact page and type your question in the content field or put your inquiry in the comments to a post. If you send an email, please list the subject of your e-mail as “Ask Unclutterer.” If you feel comfortable sharing images of the spaces that trouble you, let us know about them. The more information we have about your specific issue, the better.

Be a clutter detective

Years ago, I worked in a group home. It had a big kitchen with flat, spacious counters. My staff and I were very good at keeping the place nice and tidy, however, there was one corner of the countertop that just seemed to attract clutter.

No matter what we did, things would pile up in that corner — notebooks, mail, pens and paper, all sorts of stuff the should’ve lived in the drawer in the kitchen. For a long time, this annoyed me. I’d think, “How hard is it to just put this in the drawer? Why can’t anyone put this stuff away?” It was only after doing some detective work that I discovered the problem. The cabinet where the clutter should have been stored was the same cabinet that held a whole lot of plastic storage containers. The containers were stored in a haphazard fashion, and opening this cabinet almost guaranteed that lids and other bits of plastic would rain down upon you. Once I took care of the plastic storage containers, the countertop remained clean.

Today, you can conduct the same type of clutter detective work in your house. Look at the areas that are typically messy. You’ll want to try your best to see the space with fresh eyes. That is to say, hold a question in your mind as you inspect the space: “What exactly is keeping this area so messy?”

I did some successful detective work around our own house recently. The back door of our house is what we use most often. Just inside this door is a small coat rack we bought for the kids to use years ago. However, the kids come home from school and drop their coats and bags and hats and what-have-you all over the floor. This drove my wife and me crazy, and constant requests to please pick up after yourself after coming home from school seemed to fall on deaf ears. So what was the problem?

Well, one afternoon while putting everything on the rack again, I remembered how wobbly it was. After heaving the last winter coat onto it, the whole thing toppled over. The coat rack was the root of the problem. My kids learned that the rack just was broken and stopped using it entirely. A new coat rack was the solution.

You can apply this investigative strategy to your home office as well. In a previous post, I mentioned something I call swivel distance. This is the distance you can reach things from your chair without having to get up out of your seat. Since human beings will almost always lean toward the path of least resistance, we’re more likely to stack something instead of getting up and putting it in filing cabinet across the room. That stack of papers could be due to simple poor office layout planning.

The takeaway here is to periodically scan your house for persistent clutter spots and try to figure out why clutter loves to accumulate there. Often, the reason isn’t what you think. For example, my kids aren’t lazy or disinterested in following the rules, they just learned that the coat rack wasn’t very effective.

Modified principles of sanitary design

In the food industry, a high level of hygiene must be maintained and, in order to be profitable, it is beneficial to reduce the amount of effort required to maintain this high level of hygiene. Therefore, before any piece of equipment is purchased or any process started, it is evaluated with the Principles of Sanitary Design.

In order to reduce clutter and make my days easier and more productive at home, I ask myself these tough questions first and then I apply a modified version of the Principles of Sanitary Design prior to making any purchases. It might seem weird to use a food industry practice in one’s personal life, but I’m willing to do so because it makes my life easier, saves me money, and creates less clutter.

Easy assembly/disassembly: Items should be easy to disassemble and reassemble. If you need a degree in mechanical engineering to put together and take apart your food processor each time you need to clean it, you probably won’t use it and it will end up as clutter. Pieces of furniture may require some time and effort to assemble, however once built they should be solid. If you live a nomadic lifestyle (e.g. military family) consider purchasing furniture that can withstand being disassembled and reassembled numerous times and is easy to assemble/disassemble with a minimum number of people.

Compatible materials: Kitchen tools and kitchen appliance parts should be dishwasher safe and easily fit into the dishwasher. Fabrics should be durable and withstand day-to-day wear. Clothing should be machine washable (even if on a cold water, delicate cycle). Furniture should be able to withstand regular vacuuming and it should be easy to do “spot-cleaning” between regular deep cleans. (Purchasing a beige sofa with two children under 5 years old was not one of our family’s better ideas.)

No niches: Items that have nooks, crannies, and other hard to clean areas are off my list of potential purchases, especially if they are frequently used kitchen appliances. I avoid purchasing glasses with divots in the bottoms and bowls with rims because they collect water in the dishwasher. Furniture, lamps, and light fixtures that have dust-collecting decorative features are off my list, too, especially if I have to get a ladder to clean them.

Clean operational performance: During normal operations, the equipment should not increase my workload. For example, our hot-air popcorn popper spewed more popcorn on the floor than it did in the bowl. This created more work because we had to make two batches of popcorn to get enough in the bowl and we had to sweep the kitchen floor. A table saw that cuts wood faster than a manual saw but sprays sawdust all over the house may not actually save time or energy when cleaning up efforts are taken into account.

Hygienic compatibility: We tend not to purchase items that require special cleaners or special cleaning processes. This saves us time and effort, as well as money since we do not have to purchase special cleaners.

This list may seem restrictive, but we have found when items do pass the test, they last longer, we use them more often, and we have very little mess to clean up afterwards.

Filing: what’s worth saving?

One of the questions I ask when tempted to save and file some paper (or save information electronically) is: Under what circumstances will I ever pull this out and look at it again?

Some items obviously need to be saved for tax and legal reasons (talk to an accountant, tax lawyer, and/or estate lawyer in your state to know exactly what the law requires you retain). But, what about the other bits of information we tend to save?

I started thinking about the items I have indeed pulled out and looked at again, and what prompted me to look at those items. I asked the following questions, which have led me to keep specific types of additional documents:

Large purchase receipts: When did I buy my refrigerator?

My refrigerator was making strange noises, and I was wondering whether I was going to need to replace it. A starting point in the repair vs. replace question is how old was the refrigerator. To answer this, I looked up the receipt, which I had scanned. Keeping receipts for large purchases can help with returns and warranties — and if the receipt is for a large appliance that will remain in the house when you move, you can pass it on to the next home owner.

Computer instructions: What apps do I need to update before I update my operating system?

When I went to update my MacBook to the Mavericks OS, I looked to my computer bookmarks to find the site that had an extensive list answering just this question. I’ve since shared this list with two other people who had the same question.

Additionally, sometimes when I’m using an application that I use infrequently, I may forget how to do certain actions. I’ve filed away how-to information that was a bit difficult to find, so I have it handy when I need to do the same thing again.

Local resources: What can I do with this old fur coat I inherited?

I get questions like this from my organizing clients, and I have bookmarks in my online browser with resources, ready to share. You may wish to keep a similar reference file with business cards, notes you’ve jotted down from friends’ recommendations, etc.

Travel resources: What did I want to see in a city I’m going to visit?

For places I’m hoping to visit someday, I keep bookmarks and scanned articles about them in a digital folder; other people may choose to keep such information in Evernote or in paper. While it’s easy to search for major tourist sites in any city, and nothing replaces an up-to-date guidebook, I also like the articles that point me to oddities I might not find otherwise or point me to things worth noticing at those major tourist sites. Visiting places like this have often been a highlight of a trip.

Looking at these questions, I can see what has been useful is practical information that I can’t necessarily find through a quick online search. Realizing this is the information I reference, it will help me make better decisions in the future about what to keep and what to toss. Now it’s time to ask yourself: Under what circumstances will I ever pull this out and look at it again?

Utility storage alternatives

Of the 16 different homes in which I have lived, 12 of them did not have a designated utility closet. Most of the houses had basements or garages and we were able to our utility items in those areas. However, in a few homes, we had to be creative with our storage space, as in addition to not having a utility closet we didn’t have a basement or garage. The following are some storage solutions we’ve come up with over the years as alternatives for storing utility items in areas other than a utility closet, garage, or basement.

Cleaning products

Start by cutting down on the amount of cleaners you have. Consider using an all-purpose cleaner instead of specific cleaners for bathrooms or kitchens. Also, purchase smaller containers of cleaning products. It is a little more expensive in the longterm, but it is worth a few pennies per ounce not to have crammed cupboards. A small wash bucket can double as a caddy in which to carry the cleaning products around the house.

Here are some possible places to store cleaning products if there is no designated utility closet.

  • Bathroom cupboard
  • Kitchen cupboard (away from food storage and preparation areas)
  • Laundry room cupboard or shelf
  • Hallway or linen closet on an upper shelf

Most cleaning products, even the all-natural, organic ones, can be toxic. It is important to keep them out of the reach of children and pets. Ensure the products are on an upper shelf or cabinet doors are fitted with safety locks.

Paper products

Paper products should be stored close to where they are used. In the bathroom, consider using a multi-roll toilet roll holder so you don’t need shelf storage. Extra rolls of toilet paper can also be stored in a bathroom cabinet, in a basket or bin beside the toilet. A narrow shelf above the toilet can also provide some storage space. Surplus rolls also could be stored in a hallway closet or under a bed.

Paper towels (or kitchen roll as it’s called here in the UK) and paper napkins are often stored in the cupboard under the kitchen sink, however, if there is a leak, all of the paper towels and napkins may get ruined. Since these paper products are lightweight, consider storing them on the top shelf in a hallway closet, above kitchen cabinets, or in the cupboard over the refrigerator. Remember that paper towels are flammable and should not be stored above or near the stove or oven.

Brooms, mops, and vacuum cleaners

Brooms and mops can fit in narrow spaces. Additional storage suggestions:

  • Between the refrigerator and the wall
  • Inside closets or tall cupboards
  • Behind kitchen or bathroom doors

You can even squeeze a folding stepladder in these narrow spaces.

Vacuum cleaners are generally big and bulky. More storage options:

  • In one end of a hallway closet or bedroom clothes closet.
  • In a tall cupboard in the kitchen.
  • Behind a doorway.
  • Under a stairwell.
  • Behind a tall houseplant in the corner of the living room (upright vacuums)
  • In a chest or trunk that doubles as a table or seat (canister vacuums).

Tools

Having a few essential tools handy will help you complete household projects quickly and easily. Ideally tools should be stored in a locked box so little fingers cannot access things they shouldn’t. A toolbox can be stored under a bed, sofa, or chair or it can be stored on a shelf or in the bottom of a closet. A larger toolbox can be stored inside a closet or it can double as a console table in an entryway.

Everything Else

There are many small items that may be kept in a utility closet. These include batteries, extension cords, screws, nails, bolts, extra cable ties, bungee cords, padlocks, keys, and even some UFOs. It is best to sort these items into categories and use small containers to keep them organized. My favourite container is the Professional Organizer by Stanley. It is great for small things like nails and screws. A tower of plastic drawers is ideal for a closet or cupboard and can be used to store larger items such as flashlights, duct tape, and vacuum cleaner attachments. If you’re looking for something a little more aesthetically pleasing than plastic drawers, consider purchasing end tables with drawers and using chests of drawers as console tables and hallway tables to maximize your storage space.

There is no right or wrong way to organize utility items — use whatever method works best for you and the space where you live.

Why is organizing and uncluttering paper so difficult?

For many people, paper is the hardest type of clutter to process. There are an extraordinary number of reasons why paper is difficult to manage; the following are some of the most common reasons, along with strategies for solving these problems.

Paper is a bunch of small stuff

When I help people sort through a paper backlog, things often go like this: junk, junk, junk, incredibly important paper, junk, junk. Handling paper is time-consuming because you need to look at every piece, so you don’t miss the important stuff.

Then, you need to make a decision about each piece of paper — the same type of decision you would make when evaluating what to do with a hammer or a pair of jeans, except those are larger. You can go though a stack of papers and make hundreds of decisions and not see the same amount of obvious progress you can see with other types of clutter.

Strategy: Tackle the backlog in short-enough bursts of time that you don’t hit decision-making fatigue. And don’t be harsh with yourself if the progress seems slow, as that is just the nature of the paper beast.

More paper keeps coming

In general, we can get control of other types of stuff by doing our uncluttering and then avoiding any more unwise purchases. This isn’t the case with paper because it keeps coming in the mail, often unbidden.

Strategy: Remove yourself from mailing lists you don’t want to be on (for catalogs, charities, etc.) to limit the incoming paper.

Paper represents information

Many of us are addicted to information; it feeds our curiosity or our desire to know as much as we can about the field in which we work. Our paper piles can include huge stacks of things we feel we should read — magazines, professional journals, etc. — or should keep filed away.

Strategy: What-to-read strategies are the same for online information and for paper. The article four questions for preventing information overload may help you decide if something is really worth your time.

When it comes to the toss-or-file decision, imagine under what circumstances you will pull this reference information out of your files. If you’re planning to write a paper or give a speech on a given topic, keeping related articles may make sense. And certain reference papers are just so good that we do find ourselves coming back to them, time and again. But all too often, we file away informational papers that we’ll never use, many of which we could find again if we had an unexpected need for them.

Paper represents an investment in time and/or money

Notes and handouts from classes or conferences often languish in piles or files, never to be seen again, yet we may hesitate to throw them away.

Strategy: As Scott Belsky said, “Separate the wisdom from the action.” If you haven’t already done so, identify the to-do items buried in those notes, and incorporate them into whatever system you use for managing to-dos.

Then, decide what to do with the “wisdom.” For the papers that are keepers, consider how best to store them, so they can be found and used in the future. It may be more helpful to file them by topic, rather than keeping everything from a given conference together. You may also want to scan the article and run it through OCR software so you will easily be able to search its contents later.

Not all papers will be keepers, even from a worthwhile class or conference. Sometimes, the major benefits of a conference are connections made or a few key insights gathered. You don’t need to feel bad about dumping any paper that isn’t useful to you. Also, notes from old classes and conferences may have been useful at the time, but not so useful a number of years later.

Disappearing office supplies

I often wondered why items disappear from shared spaces, such as pens from the reception desk or coffee mugs from the lunchroom. I read about a group of epidemiologists from Australia who published the results of a study in the British Medical Journal documenting the disappearance of teaspoons from their lunchrooms. They purchased both high and low quality teaspoons and distributed them throughout the lunchrooms of their research centre. They examined teaspoon disappearance in common lunchrooms and private lunchrooms.

They found in private lunchrooms half the teaspoons had permanently disappeared in 11 weeks. However, from communal lunchrooms, it took only 6 weeks for half of the teaspoons to disappear. The researchers concluded that in order to keep their employees satisfied with the amount of teaspoons available, the research centre should purchase over 250 teaspoons per year.

I found this study interesting from an organizing perspective because it indicated items disappear faster when left in a common area where more people who have access to them. This is a problem in office settings as time is wasted looking for items and money is wasted in purchasing extra supplies. In a home setting, items are more likely to be picked up and moved by someone else in your home when left out in a common area instead of being properly stored after use. Organizing and simplifying procedures can minimize loss and misplacement of items.

Suggestions for change:

In an office setting, educate co-workers as to what is happening. Let them know how much the missing items affect the bottom line of the business. Spending a hundred dollars on replacing teaspoons means less money for other things. Encourage co-workers to bring their own personal items such as coffee mugs, water bottles, and teaspoons to use at work instead of stealing from the cafeteria or lunchroom.

Ensure people have the supplies they need. At work, each employee should be issued with a standard set of office supplies as necessary (e.g. stapler, tape dispenser, scissors, hole punch). Also, review common areas to determine what shared items are needed in these work spaces. At home, if your children are in school, they will need their own supplies for their desks instead of needing to take them from the kitchen or from your home desk.

Purchase specialized items for common areas to make them obviously shared items. For example, coffee mugs in the office lunchroom could all be exactly the same size and colour and have the company logo printed on them. The stapler and hole-punch at the photocopier could be bright red and labeled with a gold permanent marker. In your home, you might decide to get supplies for each person/area in specific colors (red for son, green for daughter, purple for mom, brown for dad, black for the kitchen, and yellow for the craft room). If you don’t wish to share an item with a roommate/family member, be sure to put it away after use to reduce the risk it will be picked up by someone else.

Some larger companies are using vending machines to dispense tools and supplies. Employees type in their employee ID code or swipe their pass-cards on the vending machine. This is an ideal solution for companies who cannot afford a full-time stock controller. It also allows management to track employees to find those who routinely misplace, hoard, or even steal tools or other supplies. It may not work with all offices, though, and certainly wouldn’t work well in a home.

While all the systems listed above may work, nothing beats a system where the items have a designated area and people are educated on the importance of returning items to where they belong. At home, a simple walk through the house each night before bed to relocate out-of-place items can also help to return items to their proper storage space so they don’t “get legs” and disappear for long periods of time.

Organizing: valuable and inexpensive

Getting organized is valuable but it doesn’t have to be expensive. There are many ways to create customized organizing solutions with a small budget.

I often look around the house to see what items can be re-purposed. We use chewing gum containers to keep office supplies organized. It is easy to see what is in them. They are easy to refill and they have a little slot so they can dispense one item at a time. These containers are the perfect size for cotton swabs and hair elastics, so we use them in the bathroom to organize cosmetics.

Blister pack chewing gum containers and inserts from boxes of chocolates can be used to organize earrings in a jewelry box or craft supplies such as beads.

CraftSanity has instructions for how to construct magazine holders and a literature sorter out of cereal boxes. Lifehacker has an article describing how Lego minifigures make great computer cord organizers and bits of Lego can be used to make key holders. Lego bricks can also be used to make holders for kitchen utensils and napkins. (Interesting fact: the exterior case for the first Google server was built with Lego bricks.)

Discount and bargain stores have great organizing supplies (Dollartree in the U.S., Dollarama in Canada and Poundland in the U.K.). You can find baskets, bins, file folders, desk caddies, hangers, hooks, and over-the-door pocket organizers. And, not to leave out the most obvious, Amazon has almost 500,000 items in a range of prices to help you get organized.

Purchasing unnecessary or unsuitable organizing supplies is one mistake some of my clients have made while trying to get their houses in order. Creating inexpensive do-it-yourself organizers like those mentioned above will allow you to experiment with different organizing systems. Once you find the products and systems that best suit your lifestyle, you may eventually want to purchase a durable, higher quality version that coordinates with your décor.

Refrigerator cleaning and organizing

Having a clean and organized refrigerator can help save you time when planning what to eat for meals and money on groceries. We’ve talked about organizing your refrigerator before, but there are additional suggestions that might help you to save even more time and money.

Start organizing your refrigerator by removing all of the food. Toss anything that is no longer edible or is past its expiration date. Place the food you intend to keep in a cooler with a few ice packs to keep it cold while you work.

It is important to clean and sanitize your refrigerator. Cleaning is the process of removing food and grime from a surface. Sanitizing is the process of reducing the number of microorganisms (germs) to a safe level. If the surfaces in your refrigerator are not clean, the sanitizer will not have a good contact with the surfaces and it will be impossible for the sanitizer to kill germs. Also, some sanitizers, such as bleach, react with organic matter (food) and will be less effective if the surface is not properly cleaned.

Remove the shelves and scrub them with warm soapy water. An old toothbrush can be useful to clean out small cracks and crannies. Rinse the refrigerator parts well and dry them with a clean towel. Clean and dry the inside walls of the refrigerator as well.

A diluted bleach solution (1 part bleach, 4 parts water) or sanitizing wipes can be used to disinfect the shelves and racks as well as the inside of the refrigerator.

Clean the outsides of bottles and jars before returning them to the refrigerator. Not only do gunky bottles make a mess, bacteria and germs love to grow in the mess. Remember to clean the outside of the refrigerator as well, especially the door handles.

When returning food items to the refrigerator, think about what is used most often and what is used least often. The foods used most often should be put just inside the door to minimize the length of time the door is open. This may save on energy bills but also reduce meal preparation time, as the foods used most often are closest to where you need them.

Group similar condiments together in baskets. By putting all the salad dressings in one basket you only need to grab that basket from the refrigerator and place it on the table when you make salad for dinner. Small baskets prevent small items from getting lost in the back of the refrigerator. You can also use baskets to contain small round cheeses, cheese slices and cheese sticks, mini yogurt containers and soy sauce, and ketchup packets for lunches.

It is a good idea to group leftovers on one shelf. Use clear plastic containers to store leftovers so it is easy to see what is in each container. Label the leftovers so that family members will know how long the container has been in the refrigerator and when it should be thrown out. A piece of masking tape and a marker make it easy to label containers, so keep these items handy.

Refrigerators are designed to keep foods cold enough to prevent food spoilage. The temperature of your refrigerator should be between 32ºF and 39ºF (0ºC and 4ºC). Freezer temperature should be 0ºF (-18ºC) which stops bacterial growth.

Use a specially designed thermometer and adjust the refrigerator dials to ensure that you’ve reached these temperatures. It may take a day or two of adjusting your refrigerator dials to ensure you’ve achieved the correct temperature.

A few more tips…

  • Clean out the refrigerator before grocery shopping — you’ll be able to get a better sense of what you have and have space to store what you buy.
  • Dispose of old leftovers just before trash day — you won’t smell up your kitchen with the odor of rotting food.
  • If you keep raw meat in the refrigerator, ensure that the drippings do not fall on fresh produce or already cooked foods. If you do not have a “meat drawer,” store or defrost meat on a plastic tray that you can remove and easily clean and disinfect.
  • Use a corner cupboard organizer to stack plates of food and maximize vertical space.

If your refrigerator is organized it is much easier to clean. Remember: Clean refrigerators are healthy refrigerators!

Small productivity tips with large benefits

The following are four super-simple things you can do in less than five minutes to make a huge improvement in your productivity and efficiency.

First and foremost: disable the alert sound that announces every new email you receive on your computer. This alert sound is such a compelling distraction that it can pull me out of almost anything I’m doing. It’s similar to the sound of a ringing phone — no one can resist it. A lot of people learn to check email at pre-determined intervals (which I recommend), but even just silencing that insistent little beep and checking your email whenever you want will go a long way to reducing distractions and increasing productivity. I killed the beep on my iPhone, too. You can easily turn these notifications back on if the need arises.

A second suggestion and another large improvement for me was eliminating leisure computing after 9:00 p.m. Nothing increases productivity like sleep, and late-night Facebook browsing or tweeting was robbing me of that precious commodity. Let me tell you, it wasn’t easy! I’m going to order the book iDisorder: Understanding Our Obsession with Technology and Overcoming Its Hold on Us by Larry D. Rosen for more insight on this topic. But even my modest efforts have been beneficial, as I’m getting more sleep.

My favorite online calendar is Google Calendar. I’ve been using it for years and I love it. However, I only recently discovered the “Quick Add” feature. Here’s how it works: when creating a new event, click the downward-pointing arrow next to the “Create” button. Then, enter an event that follows the what, where, and when pattern (note that only “what” and “when” are required). For example, “Meeting with Tom at Starbucks on Tuesday 2.15 p.m.” Using natural language is SO much faster than creating an event and filling each field one at a time. How did it take me so long to find this?

Finally, and this is my favorite, install an app launcher. This is a piece of software that, among other things, lets you launch applications with only a stroke of a key or two. I’m a Mac user and I swear by Alfred. LaunchBar is another popular alternative. On the Windows side, consider Launchy. With Alfred, I can open any app by hitting Command-Space and then typing just the first one or two letters of that app’s name. I can’t even measure how much time this saves me throughout the day. All of these programs do a lot more than launch other apps, but this feature alone makes them worth installing. In fact, when I get a new computer, the absolute first thing I do with it is install Alfred.

You can get fancy with your productivity enhancement to great benefit, but remember that sometimes small changes can make huge differences. Share your favorite small tips that reap huge rewards in productivity and efficiency.